UPDATE: Ooltewah basketball coach re-assigned after assault
Hamilton Co. Schools Superintendent Rick Smith and Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond held a news conference Monday on the Ooltewah assault case.
UPDATE: Ooltewah High School basketball coach Andre Montgomery has been re-assigned to a "non-teaching, non-administrative" position, Hamilton County School's Superintendent, Rick Smith said in an afternoon news conference. Montgomery is being transferred to a facility away from students, Ooltewah High School, and the central office.
Montgomery's re-assignment comes on the heels of the season being canceled for the team following the December 22 assault in Gatlinburg while the team was competing in a basketball tournament there.
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said the investigation being conducted with current investigations underway in Gatlinburg and Sevier County.
Smith also said that he had not yet spoken with the victim's family, despite repeated attempts to do so.
Also on Monday, Smith said:
- He should have addressed the press and the public earlier in the investigation process. He said the case has consumed him 24 hours a day, but in retrospect, "We should have done (this press conference) a week ago."
- He was following the advice of the School Board attorney when officials reported they were under a "gag order" from Sevier County last week. Although no such order has been officially handed down, Smith said he and the attorney felt they were following the intent of Sevier County officials, and that not discussing an on-going investigation, particularly of a juvenile nature, is typical procedure.
- He wishes he had cancelled Ooltewah's basketball season immediately after the December 22 incident was reported, rather than waiting until the team played four additional games.
- In-school counseling is available and being provided for additional victims of the December 22 assault, and other Ooltewah students as needed.
- Ooltewah High's administrative team "is being looked at" as school officials assess the repercussions of the assault case. He said a "re-start" for the school is possible in the months to come, in the wake of widespread criticism about an alleged "culture of hazing" and unusually high student hardship transfer numbers.
- The freshmen basketball players who were reportedly assaulted in the December 22nd incident are considered a part of the varsity team that has been cancelled for the remainder of the season. These players are not allowed to participate in the ongoing freshmen team schedule, because "that wouldn't be fair to the players who are already on that team."
- Although Board members will be reviewing field trip policies, and responses to out-of-town rule violations, there are no plans to suspend field trips or other extracurricular activities. Smith said, "We should always just send them home" when rules are broken. He said such activities should be supported, with tighter supervision and rules, "but we must support these activities, and make them better."
- Despite an online petition demanding he leave his post, "Resignation has never crossed my mind. I feel supported by my School Board. Still, I need to improve. I'm my toughest critic. I accept that." He is under contract through July 2019, at approximately $200,000 per year. His contracted was extended just last year, as Board members gave him above-average evaluations.
- He has "read everything that has been written about me online. I've been accused of covering up. This school system does not cover things up."
- The fact that the case is being investigated in two counties by various agencies "makes this case a difficult one. It isn't always easy to get information."
- A hotline number has been established for anonymous complaints of bullying. He said he and Board members will be exploring ways to ensure student safety, and to reinforce anti-bullying policies already in place.
PREVIOUS STORY: Hamilton County School Board chair Jonathan Welch has issued a statement in response to mounting criticism of the Board's response to the Ooltewah High rape/assault investigation. Board members and Superintendent Rick Smith came under fire from parents and community members for a brief meeting on Wednesday in which no questions were taken, and no answers were given.
Three Ooltewah High basketball players are suspended after being charged with aggravated rape and aggravated assault of a 15-year-old student on December 22 during a tournament visit to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The victim is recuperating at home, while the two of the alleged perpetrators, ages 17 and 16, are being held in Sevier County Juvenile Detention. The other student, a 16-year-old, is out on bond.
Here is the statement from Welch:
"I want to first take responsibility for and apologize to the citizens of Hamilton County for the abruptness of the emergency board meeting this past week.
I, as board chair, was acting on the advice of counsel, as well as our local Hamilton County District Attorney, not to discuss in any way the reprehensible events in Gatlinburg on December 22 while that is under criminal investigation.
But clearly, we have responsibilities that go beyond the tragic specifics of the current case – in providing board oversight of the school system -- and in offering as much information as we can for parents and our community about what we are doing to find out all that happened and to make sure it never happens again.
I came up short on both on Wednesday night – and I apologize. I will do better.
It is our responsibility to make sure the district is fully cooperating with law enforcement investigators in Sevier County, and with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department, who are independently reviewing and evaluating all aspects of this case – and we are doing so so. This began earlier in the week when I reached out to our District Attorney to ask if he could perform an investigation into this case. I was pleased to hear that he had already begun conversations with the Sheriff’s department about doing just so. This is one way I hope to help begin to restore confidence in our school system.
It is our responsibility to determine whether the Superintendent responded and acted appropriately to this tragic event - and we are doing so.
It is our responsibility to evaluate the roles and responsibilities that both school personnel and volunteer chaperones are asked to play during any overnight or out of town school activity – and we are doing so.
It is our responsibility to confirm that district policies and procedures are in place and are being aggressively followed to prevent any kind of hazing, bullying or harassment in our public schools – and we are doing so.
And it is our responsibility to engage in as many open and transparent conversations as we can with the public and the media about the things we are doing and to listen to their questions and concerns – even when we cannot officially respond -- and we will do so.
Accordingly, I want to announce two public board sessions, where we will meet to discuss these important issues and listen to the concerns of the community.
The first is this Thursday night’s, January 14, working session of the board where will be meeting to discuss district hazing and anti-bullying policies – and all policies and procedures related to out of town or overnight school events among others that may be in any way related to preventing tragedies in the future.
Following this policy committee working session will also include a public forum for the board to hear the concerns of the community.
The second upcoming session is our regular board meeting on Thursday, January 21, where we will have our regular business meeting.
Again, that board meeting will include a public forum following the regular business meeting so we can share information with the community and the community can share information and concerns with us.
I cannot take back any of the mistakes made in trying to protect the integrity of the independent investigations and the rights and privacy of those involved – but we can work to do better in sharing what we are doing – and to listen even more carefully to parents, educators and taxpayers in our community as we move forward.
And that’s we intend to do."